We Love… 25 Years of Irish Film – Hunger

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

So Film Ireland magazine is 25 years old. Over those years Ireland has produced some great films which have been successful both here and abroad – not to mention nabbing a few Oscars® along the way. And so over the next couple of weeks Film Ireland‘s army of cinema dwellers look back over the last 25 years and recall their favourite Irish films in the latest installment of…


We Love…

25 Years of Irish Film

 

Hunger

(Steve McQueen, 2008)

‘… without doubt the finest art film this island has ever produced…’

David Neary

Irish history is bursting with stories to be told, but a lack of imagination and, more crucially, funding, has always held our filmmakers back, leaving Ireland to play a surrogate landscape for the histories of Britain. Ireland’s one proper historical epic, Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, suffered from the same Civil War politics that still dampen discourse to this day. In order to make a truly great film about Irish politics, it was always going to take a filmmaker divorced from that world.

Experimental London artist Steve McQueen had made several short art films, projected in such esteemed spaces as the Tate Modern and MoMA, before his first feature film Hunger was released in 2008. A Film4 production co-financed with Irish and Northern Irish money, Hunger was written by Enda Walsh, the man behind Disco Pigs. With Walsh’s powerful, balanced screenplay and McQueen’s sensational, bold filmmaking, Hunger is without doubt the finest art film this island has ever produced.

More of an experiment with the possibilities of the camera than a political eulogy, McQueen’s film is a biopic-of-sorts of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, during his final months in the Maze Prison in 1980/81. While not arguing for or against the politics of the IRA or the British role in Northern Ireland, Hunger instead looks at what men will do for a cause they believe; to themselves and to others.

The film is slow, contemplative and utterly intense. From the beautiful yet ghastly art of a faeces-smeared prison wall and the gradual wasting away of Sands’s body, to the fumbled lighting of a cigarette by bloodied hands and the slow, haunting, hypnotic washing of a prison floor, Hunger is a feast for the eyes and the mind from start to finish.

I am standing on the threshold of another trembling world

In a revelatory, career-launching performance, Michael Fassbender plays Sands with an unexpected intensity the actor has since become a worldwide sensation for, even unleashing his trademark grin as the weakened Sands begins to feel a sense of victory in his draining life. Throwing a mirror up to Sands, Stuart Graham portrays prison officer Raymond Lohan as a similarly weakened shell of a man, disillusioned with the horrors he has witnessed and must enforce.

Since its release, Hunger has become most famous for its exhausting single-take sequence in which Sands debates his fate and the morality of his actions with Liam Cunningham’s priest, but the shot that sticks with you comes in a deathbed flashback as Sands recalls a life-altering childhood trip, and the camera is blinded by a beam of sunlight blasting through a bus window.

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